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Hindsight proves kinder, and gentler, to Bush 41


WASHINGTON » The elder George Bush will not give a speech. He is done with all that, he tells friends. But he will mingle and reminisce and bask in the admiration of graying men and women who helped him govern at a time when, some thought, they had reached the end of history.

As it happens, history is not done with Bush, at least not if his advocates have anything to say about it. More than 800 supporters, allies, aides and even some former opponents of the 41st president will gather in College Station, Texas, on Friday for a three-day reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of the George H.W. Bush administration and try to burnish its legacy along the way.

This seems to be a season for presidential rehabilitation, if not for the incumbent then for his predecessors. On Thursday night, Jimmy Carter attended the opening of a new play in Washington called "Camp David," about his landmark Middle East peace treaty. On Friday morning, Bush’s son and 43rd president, George W. Bush, will reinvent himself as an artist as he puts his post-presidency paintings on display for the first time, at his Dallas library.

Next week, four former presidents will travel to Austin to help the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library conduct a three-day conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. And every week, it seems, Bill Clinton is working on what could be the ultimate legacy project: helping elect his wife president.

None of them, however, has undergone the political reincarnation that George Herbert Walker Bush has. Frail from a form of Parkinson’s disease, Bush, 89, has benefited from a wave of historical revisionism that has transformed him from the biggest incumbent loser since William Howard Taft to, by at least one measure, the most popular former president of the past half century.

"This is a man who campaigned for a kinder, gentler nation," said Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Johnson library, who is working on a book about the two Bush presidents. "And it’s interesting that after a quarter-century, he’s getting a kinder and gentler verdict in history."

Updegrove’s is one of several books in the works about the 41st president and will take its place among recent documentaries and awards. After bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the elder Bush three years ago, President Barack Obama brought him back to the White House last summer to honor him. Last week, Mount Vernon gave Bush its first Cyrus A. Ansary Prize for Courage and Character. Next month, he will receive the Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

Bush’s single term, from 1989 to 1993, proved a pivot point at home and abroad. The last president to have served in World War II, he managed the end of the Cold War, saw the reunification of Germany and expelled Iraq from Kuwait. He reauthorized the Civil Rights Act, updated the Clean Air Act and signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But he broke his "read my lips" promise not to raise taxes and lost re-election when he seemed disengaged from a troubled economy.

"Twenty-five years later, history is beginning to recognize that George Bush was the best one-term president in American history," said James A. Baker III, his secretary of state and longtime friend.

Robert Gates, Bush’s CIA director who later served the younger Bush and Obama as secretary of defense, said, "There is no precedent for the collapse of a great empire without a war," adding that Bush was "beginning to get the credit for the way he managed that."

The nostalgia for the elder Bush may say as much about these times as his. Those were the days when the United States went to war with Iraq and then got out, when the two political parties struck grand bargains tackling the budget deficit, when Russia was a newfound friend retreating from confrontation rather than provoking it.

Just as telling are Bush’s current friends and foes. Among the friends are some of the same Democrats who tormented him but now lavish him with praise. Among the foes are some of today’s Republicans, who see him as the epitome of everything they do not want to be.

"You never hear anyone point to Bush 41," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party group. "By definition, a one-term president is a failed president. The American people rejected his economic policies."

On the other side of that argument is Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who ran for the Democratic nomination to challenge Bush in 1992. "I know they’re building statues of Ronald Reagan at airports," Harkin said, "but in terms of their lives and their life’s work, to me, Bush 41 is much more integral to the development of American government and the process of democracy."

Harkin will attend this weekend’s events at the elder Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M University, organized by Frederick D. McClure, chief executive of the library foundation. Harkin will appear on a panel to discuss the Americans with Disabilities Act, on which he collaborated with Bush.

Also on hand will be another Democrat, former Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, who helped broker the 1990 budget deal that included tax increases.

"If there’s a single word that you can use to describe Bush’s approach to politics, it’s governance," Obey said. "It was a case where the adults ran the show."

Other Democrats are quick to add praise.

"I actually have a high opinion of Bush 41," said former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who ran for president in 1988. Bush showed "strong presidential leadership," Gephardt said, in taking on his own party over taxes and not pursuing Iraqi troops all the way to Baghdad.

But Bush’s broken tax promise arguably paved the way for a revolution within, as Newt Gingrich and others wrested control from the establishment. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who has helped persuade Republicans never to repeat what he called the "disaster" of the 1990 tax deal, today acclaims Bush for his international policies and laments that he sacrificed them.

"On foreign policy, he was a brilliant president and did brilliant things," Norquist said. "But he threw away the presidency."

In a three-way race, Bush lost re-election in 1992 with 37 percent of the vote, the smallest share of any major party candidate since 1936 and of any incumbent seeking another term since 1912. But since leaving office, his average approval rating has been 66 percent, according to Gallup, the highest of the eight most recent former presidents.

Jon Meacham, who is writing a biography of Bush to be called "The Last Gentleman," said in the end "I do think he’s very much at peace."

Peter Baker, New York Times

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